Industry View: Big corporate pay rises arm Labour for tax reform

Day after day, Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, is being handed juicy political windfalls by Britain's top companies. A succession of recent annual reports has listed large pay rises for directors amounting to 10, 20 or 30 times the rate of inflation.

It is early in the annual reports season to be sure of what is happening in the corporate undergrowth. Most of the reports published so far have been for companies with December year-ends, and directors' pay for those with March year-ends will not be visible until late spring.

But if the news so far is any indication of what is in store during the rest of the spring and summer, the Government ought to be seriously concerned at the potential impact as the election approaches. If this first batch of reports is in any way typical, 1995 will be another year of headlines about enormous pay rises at the top of corporate Britain as workforces are slashed and find their earnings increases kept at or below the inflation rate. It will be a gift for Mr Brown's speechwriters. Even a relatively modest increase, such as the 11 per cent awarded to Martin Taylor, chief executive of Barclays, did not go down well with staff unions which were disputing a 4.5 pay offer and who had just been told of another thousand redundancies.

And Sir Ronald Hampel, the chairman of the new committee on corporate governance, whose agenda includes reviewing the work of the Greenbury Committee on top pay, succeeded in muddying the waters still further when he took home 42 per cent more last year.

To be fair to him, his basic pay and bonus were down and he had changed jobs inside the company. But with timing that should have made the company's remuneration committee blush, a pounds 425,000 long-term performance bonus brought his total take-home pay to pounds 863,000.

There has been a rather similar trend in the United States as the presidential election approaches, so British business cannot be accused of being alone with its political blinkers. Business Week recently listed a series of pay increases at the top that it forecast would prove a gift to critics of big business on the US presidential election campaign trail. Average chief executive pay at large companies rose 23 per cent to $4.37m in 1995.

Ronald Compton, of Aetna Life & Casualty, was paid 485 per cent more at $6.64m, though its shares rose 47 per cent last year; Richard Fisher of Morgan Stanley earned 318 per cent more at $11.93m, as the shares rose 36.7 per cent.

In the US, high rewards are not regarded with quite the distaste they are in Britain, as long as they are accompanied by high performance. But Business Week concluded that another provocative pay season was beginning "just as the presidential election campaign is shifting into high gear. Not exactly the best time for the nation's CEOs to take the money and run".

So will John Major be presented, as the UK election approaches, with a re-run of the scandal that resulted from the last British executive pay round, in1994? There are some differences. The rows over 1994 earnings resulted from the greed of directors of some privatised utilities, which overshadowed the rest of the private sector.

The utilities affair led to the Greenbury Committee, ostensibly at the instigation of the CBI. In fact, Michael Heseltine, then President of the Board of Trade, had privately urged employers to set up the committee to take the pressure out of a difficult situation in the Commons.

In 1995, pay awards at the utilities probably did moderate. Some of the electricity companies dropped or modified their share option schemes. British Gas directors as a group earned 47 per cent more, but largely because of golden handshakes and hellos for departing and arriving directors. Cedric Brown, the retiring chief executive who was paid 75 per cent more in 1994, took a small pay cut in 1995, and the salary of Richard Giordano, the chairman, was static.

But the picture for 1995 may not look so good - or bad, depending on your point of view - when all the figures are out, because many private sector companies turned in good profits and dividend increases last year. The FT-SE 100 rose by a fifth.

The increases in the table (right) are taken from a random selection of large company annual reports among the many that have been sent to this office in the last few weeks.

As a statistical sample, they are almost meaningless, of course. Measurement of directors' pay is full of pitfalls and, when it comes to the detail, companies can nearly always find special circumstances to justify unusual increases - perhaps the maturing of a long-term performance scheme or a one-off contractual obligation to top up a pension resulting from the government cap on tax relief.

Within a boardroom, pay may go both up and down at the same time, as NatWest showed in 1995 when Derek Wanless, the chief executive, earned 19 per cent more but his highest paid director, John Tugwell, took a 24 per cent cut from pounds 1.46m to pounds 1.12m. And there may be genuine market pressure on executive pay.

The 50 per cent increase to pounds 651,000 of David Barnes at Zeneca leaves him still far below the pounds 1.8m of Jan Leschly at SmithKline Beecham and the pounds 2.4m Sir Richard Sykes earned at Glaxo in the 18 months to December.

Indeed, the public perception that British boardrooms all had their snouts in the trough in 1994 turned out to be misleading when detailed surveys by actuaries and accountants were published last autumn. The average increase was slightly down on 1993.

As the chart of merit increases for directors in 1994 shows, most were in fact quite restrained. The ones that grab the headlines, with increases above 15 per cent, are a small fraction of the total, though it does not take many of them to create a political embarrassment.

There were some signs of common sense. In 1995 British Aerospace directors took a 3 per cent rise after nearly doubling profits. In line with the Greenbury Report recommendations, they were given a new long-term incentive scheme.

These have the advantage of being linked more closely to performance than bonuses and share options. But they are also deferred pay, restraining present increases in return for potentially bigger rewards later. Even if 1995 turns out to be more restrained than the first results suggest, the pay bandwagon will roll on for many more years yet.

That must make the highest paid a tempting tax target for a Labour Chancellor. Directors who cannot exercise restraint will have only themselves to blame.

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